Pulitzer Prize winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin (The Bully Pulpit, 2013), quotes muckraker journalist Frank Norris at the turn of the 20th century as saying, “The Pulpit, the Press, and the Novel – these indisputably are the great molders of public opinion and public morals today.” By “pulpit,” Norris meant such preachers as New York’s Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) whom Martin Luther King Jr. labeled “the foremost prophet of our generation”; and maybe, among rabbis, Stephen S. Wise, who was championing unions even as Norris was busting trusts.
So how did it happen that, at least among Jews, the pulpit voice of conscience has virtually disappeared?
In 1984, conservative Lutheran pastor Richard John Neuhaus bemoaned the absence of a religious voice in what he famously labeled “The Naked Public Square.” He went so far as to predict the end of democracy itself, if national opinion was not enriched by conversation rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. As we all know by now, conservatives took him up on his challenge, to the point where, as recently as February 15 (“Republicans, the Religious Right and Evolution,” New York Times), Frank Bruni noted assorted fundamentalist lawmakers sounding more like pastors than politicians by arguing against gay marriage and evolution, but for a national day of prayer as a preferred governmental policy to bring the rain required to fight forest fires and droughts.
Liberal religionists, by contrast, hardly ever call for anything, at least not publicly. Instead of learned sermons, rabbis facilitate discussions on the weekly parashah and lead guided meditations to induce Shabbat quiet. Among Reform rabbis anyway, prophetic exhortation has been replaced by pastoral healing, which, for many, is virtually an obsession.
I am all for synagogues with healing prayers, spirituality and relationship-building. Indeed, I helped pioneer them. But things have gone too far.
The healing movement in synagogues must be understood as a critique of the prophetic style, which took root especially in the 1890s as the Jewish parallel to what Christians called “The Social Gospel.” By the 1950s and ‘60s, it morphed into Civil Rights marches and opposition to the Vietnam War. By the ‘70s, the Jewish community was refocusing its efforts inward, a response to the Six-Day War and the Refusenik movement, which directed prophetic zeal to distinctively Jewish causes. But that was it.
Were we just tired out? Had the civil-rights marches, the anti-war movement, the Six-Day War and the fight for Soviet Jews exhausted our will to change the world?
Whatever the cause, old pulpit-centered rabbis were increasingly castigated as cold, distant, and judgmental: a verdict hastened by the growing feminist critique. Rabbis, we said, should be collaborative and pastoral. Synagogues should be warm and welcoming, a kind of “Beit Transactional Analysis: I’m OK, you’re OK.”
Among rabbis themselves, meanwhile, the critique of their elders was personalized with the vow to balance home and job in ways the old guys never had – to make sure to take time off; and to assure mental balance by setting aside time for personal spirituality. I confess having something to do with the personal spirituality part as well, but again, we have gone too far. We mistakenly saw rabbinic burnout as a necessary consequence of treating one’s rabbinate as a calling, not just a profession; we demonized pulpit rabbis of the past as hierarchical bordering on egomaniacal. And we concluded that because people wanted “warm and welcoming,” that was all they wanted! Let the rabbi be their friend, calling them to personal spiritual wellness and healing.
I am for all of that: warm, welcoming, relational, spiritual, and healing. But synagogues also need to have ideas that matter. Rabbis can hold people’s hand while also holding them to account. Spiritual healing is not inconsistent with prophetic conscience. I don’t mean simplistic reiterations of newspaper op ed columns with a tag-line from Isaiah to outfit them as Jewish. I mean deeply informed discussions of the human condition, our responsibility in a world at war and a nation that is polarized and fragmented. I mean the genuine Jewish call not just to retreat into a deeper life within but to advance toward a better society without.
I teach rabbis; I love them; they are my former students, my colleagues, my best friends, and, overall, the finest human beings you will ever meet. But come on rabbis; we can do better than this. We can be the voice of an enlightened Judaism, in league with science and with God, positing purpose, promise and hope. We can raise the level of national discourse by having something worth saying ourselves – and by saying it eloquently and passionately. If we rise to the occasion, so too will our congregants, because they want something deeper from us even more than we do.